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Most or all of Thomas Hardy's novels are set in the region of "Wessex", which (as defined by him) covers a vast swathe of England, as you can see from the map provided in this answer:

Wessex

Notable towns in Wessex include "Christminster" - a very thinly veiled version of Oxford, and an important location in Jude the Obscure - and "Casterbridge", a fictionalised Dorchester and the main setting for The Mayor of Casterbridge. The list goes on: there are dozens of real towns and villages whose names have been changed for Hardy's novels.

Why did he change these place names? Why not either call them "Oxford", "Dorchester", etc., or create entirely fictional towns like Anthony Trollope's Barchester?

  • Not sure if this question should have the setting or name-significance tags. Feel free to retag if necessary. – Rand al'Thor Nov 30 '17 at 2:35
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    I live in the UK, and “Wessex” is an Anglo-Saxon term for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of England. So it is a very outdated term, whilst the counties of Essex and Middlesex still exist, Wessex doesn’t. It is kind of fictionalised in that way so I suppose that the places like Casterbridge is like in 221b Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes. Probably to prevent a surge in tourism and disturbance to people living there? Why he didn’t create entirely new places was maybe because of the ‘if it ain’t broke why fix it?’ kind of idea. – Fabjaja Nov 30 '17 at 9:57
  • @Fabjaja Were tourism surges a big thing in Hardy's day? Actually a real query, not snark. – Spagirl Nov 30 '17 at 17:56
  • Perhaps he didn't want the Mayor of Dorchester to take out an action against him.... – Spagirl Nov 30 '17 at 17:59
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    @Fabjaja Thanks. I've actually written about this in general too (using that article as a source!), but wondered if anything specific could be said about Hardy and Wessex. (I'm also aware of the history of the real-life kingdom of Wessex, which under Alfred the Great is often seen as the first time "England" really became a country, and that makes this specific case of fictionalised names even more interesting.) – Rand al'Thor Dec 1 '17 at 20:39
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As user Fabjaja notes in the comments, Wessex was originally a kingdom in Anglo-Saxon Britain. While some of its peers survive in modern nomenclature (such as the county of Essex), Wessex had not. The name would have been largely unfamiliar to readers in Hardy's time - it is almost entirely thanks to his writing that it re-entered the modern vocabulary. Although not in common usage, most folk nowadays would understand that it refers to the geographical area where the books were set.

He first used the term in chapter 50 of Far from the Madding Crowd. Prior to this he had already written four novels, none of which used the word, instead referring to the area by its proper name, the county of Dorset.

Far from the Madding Crowd was the most popular of his books to date, however, and he attributed this partly to its setting in a semi-mythical rural England. The name recurs in the very first sentance of the next novel, The Hand of Ethelberta.

It is worth remembering that in Hardy's time, novels often started life as serials, and print runs were small. So, as his popularity increase, he had the opportunity to revise and edit subsequent editions of his books. He appears to have used this opportunity to change the place-names in his early books into fictional ones in his expanding mythology, making it seem more pre-planned that it really was.

The reasons why he did this, then, are partly commercial - his audience liked it. At the time, Dorset was one of the least populated parts of the country. City folk found its rural rituals fascinating. In 1912 he wrote in his General Preface to the Novels and Poems:

"the region designated was known but vaguely;"

It seems they preferred it in fictionalised form than in actual place names they might be vaguely familiar with.

Hardy, however, also felt that mythologising it offered him more creative freedom. Again in the General Preface he wrote:

"I considered that our magnificent heritage from the Greeks in dramatic literature found sufficient room for a large proportion of its action in an extent of their country not much larger than the half-dozen counties here reunited under the old name of Wessex"

Hardy was creating what he saw as his own Greek fiction, a creative space in which he could work in the manner of the classical masters of antiquity.

References:

  • Williams, Merryn. Thomas Hardy and Rural England. London: Macmillan, 1972.
  • Kay-Robinson, Denys. The Landscape of Thomas Hardy. Exeter, England: Webb and Bower, 1984.
  • Very interesting answer! One issue: "it is almost entirely thanks to his writing that it re-entered the modern vocabulary to refer to the geographical area where the books were set" - are you sure about this? I know that part of the country well, and I've never heard it referred to as Wessex except in reference to Hardy's books, and even that is much rarer than hearing about the real historical kingdom of Wessex. I didn't think Hardy had had much of an influence on the use of the word "Wessex" in modern vocabulary. – Rand al'Thor Dec 1 '17 at 20:46
  • @rand-althor I didn't mean to imply it had returned to common usage. Rather that it was a word which would have been almost unrecognised in Hardy's time but which, now, most folk would understand. I live in Somerset - part of historical Wessex - and it's not uncommonly used in place names. – Matt Thrower Dec 1 '17 at 21:06

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